The good voyage
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Editor’s Note: Hōkūle‘a, a traditionally-built Polynesian voyaging canoe and Hawai‘i’s cultural ambassador to the world, has spent the past three years spreading a message of mālama honua—caring for the planet—to cities around the world. Apprentice navigator and photographer Austin Kino reflects on the purpose of the journey and on the connections to people and place that the canoe forges at each of the stops along its worldwide voyage.
One day near the end of my senior year at Kamehameha Schools, I was invited to attend a meeting with Polynesian Voyaging Society master navigator and Kamehameha Schools trustee Nainoa Thompson at Kawaiaha‘o Plaza in downtown Honolulu. Thanks to an increased focus and energy in educating Hawaiian youth about their culture and history, I had begun to take an interest in traditional Hawaiian voyaging, and in the famous wa‘a (traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe) Hōkūle‘a. “Uncle Nainoa,” as I would come to know him, was a figure I had regularly seen around the Kapalama campus, and would frequently see paddling his canoe in Maunalua Bay near my home.
That night, 10 high school students gathered around a gigantic koa wood conference table. Nainoa walked in and, as he does to this day, took the time to greet each person in the room individually with a sincere handshake and hug. He took a small, rolled up map of the world out, no bigger than an open textbook and looked around at all of us as we glanced back and forth between one another and the map.
“Well,” he said. “What do you guys think, should we go?”
Although I didn’t realize it then, that question was not one that Nainoa had created just for us. Rather, it was a question that had been passed down to him by his own teachers.
In particular, Nainoa’s close friend Lieutenant Colonel Charles Lacy Veach, a graduate of Punahou School who went on to become only the second Hawai‘i-grown astronaut to travel into space (after Ellison Onizuka), had a profound influence on him. Lacy, as he was known, participated in two missions into space: the first in 1991 aboard the Discovery and the second just a year later aboard the Columbia.
“He and Nainoa shared a friendship that I’d never seen before,” says Lacy’s mother, Alice Veach. “I used to say that they were soul mates in an old wisdom-type way.”
Nainoa and Lacy would meet up on Hawai‘i Island to spend the night in the lava fields, watching the stars and, especially, talking about the future. The black surface of the hardened lava would absorb every last bit of light so they could watch the night’s sky free of any pollution. In reflecting on their conversations today, Nainoa speaks in awe of Lacy’s prescience; that already, in the late ‘80s, he shared concern for the fragility of the planet and predicted much of the ecological trouble that we see in our environment today.
“There is so much at risk, we wondered when we would take action,” Nainoa says. “He couldn’t understand why action was not being taken to save the planet. He was upset and frustrated.”
I never had the privilege of meeting Lacy, who died of skin cancer at a tragically young age, just a few years after his second journey into space. But, throughout my navigation training, Nainoa shared stories about him and ingrained in us his vision for a better future.
“If you do not have a vision for your future, then others will try to impress their vision upon you,” Nainoa told us.
After that night in the boardroom, I began to help with the work of preparing Hōkūle‘a for a long sea journey, regularly working alongside members of the crew. Our high school group became known as Kapu Nā Keiki, which means “children are sacred.” The name is actually carved into the stern railing of the Hōkūle‘a, not as a reference to our young crew, but as one of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s core values. The individual responsible for imparting this value into the organization was none other than Nainoa’s father Pinky Thompson.
Uncle Pinky was another visionary leader, spending his life working for the betterment of Hawai‘i and, specifically, for its children. He was a social worker, a land use planner, a trustee of the Bishop Estate and a president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS). As president of PVS, Uncle Pinky’s vision integrated a past, present and future approach, reaffirming that traditional Polynesian values can be applied across both time and space. “Before our ancestors set out to find a new island, they had to have a vision of that island over the horizon,” Pinky once said.
Nainoa speaks about the conversations his father and Lacy would have on the deck of their family home in Niu Valley. “The worldwide voyage seed was planted back in 1992 when Lacy was drinking beer with my father,” Nainoa remembers. “The excitement and enthusiasm the two great navigators felt was infectious. They talked about the need to rethink our sail plan to take care of the planet, and they agreed that Hōkūle‘a could help.”
Then-32-year-old Nainoa sat and listened to his teachers speak. In response to Lacy’s idea to take Hōkūle‘a around the world, Nainoa clearly recalls his father’s response. “My father would say, ‘is the Hawaiian community ready for this? Are they strong enough to make this voyage happen?’”
It took 18 months and 32,000 man-hours to rebuild Hōkūle‘a and make her ready for the worldwide voyage. No amount of water rot was acceptable, requiring laborers to take the hulls down to within one inch of their original structure and rebuild everything else brand new.
“If we cannot do this voyage safely then we will not go,” Nainoa said at our crew meetings.
There’s nothing glamorous about sanding fiberglass. Even so, the dedicated crew members gave every afternoon of the week, often after working nine-to-fives, to drive down to Sand Island, throw on dust masks, sand, sweat and then go home with the itch of fiberglass saturated into their skin as they tried to sleep, only to wake up and do it all again the next day. Without this committed group of individuals, Hōkūle‘a would still be sitting in a parking lot in Sand Island.
With the canoe structurally sound, the next step was to make sure that our communities were, in fact, ready. If the Hōkūle‘a is Hawai‘i’s canoe, then it needs Hawai‘i’s permission to go. For two years we trained our crews, sailing Hōkūle‘a and her sister wa‘a, the Hikianalia, inter-island to honor the communities throughout the archipelago that had supported Hōkūle‘a since the very beginning of PVS.
“Is this voyage of sailing around the world worth the risk?” This became the central question for our leadership to weigh, given the thousands of dollars, the time and the effort that would have to go into this voyage. Each member of the crew would have to pass a strict physical examination and a swim test, in addition to two years experience training and a laundry list of provisioning that would need to be done to equip the wa‘a with everything it could possibly need for three years away from Hawai‘i. I had never before seen a combined effort of that scale.
Now, looking back, I think that Uncle Pinky’s question has been answered: if it were not for the strength and readiness of Hawai‘i’s communities, the worldwide voyage would have remained only an idea.
There and Back Again
Standing at Palekai Harbor in Hilo Bay as one of 13 crewmembers who would sail Hōkūle‘a on the first leg of her journey from Hawai‘i to Tahiti still feels like it was a dream. We said goodbye to our land families and joined the family of the wa‘a to settle in for what would likely be 30 days together at sea.
We do as our teacher Pius “Papa Mau” Piailug, who first navigated Hōkūle‘a to Tahiti in 1976, taught us and “make happy.” The problems we might have had were buried on the land so that we might come together as one family with Hōkūle‘a as our mother and the navigator as our father. On that leg of the voyage, the responsibility of navigation was to be shared between five apprentice navigators, with Nainoa on board to guide us through our first experience in deep sea.
There are many stories to share about that first leg to Tahiti, but one night stands out as it relates to the vision for the worldwide voyage. As apprentice navigators, we were teamed up in twos, each pair responsible for navigating Hōkūle‘a for a 48-hour period. At 27 years old, Nainoa navigated the entire 30-day passage to Tahiti solo on his very first voyage; we counted ourselves fortunate.
On my second round of 48-hours, I could barely stay awake during night two and, out of desperation to strike up a conversation to keep me awake, I asked Nainoa a question that I probably should have thought through more. “Uncle Nainoa,” I said. “I understand why people in Polynesia connect to and support Hōkūle‘a, but do you really believe that once we set sail to the rest of the world that people will even care?”
Hearing the words come out of my mouth I instantly regretted vocalizing my doubts, especially so soon after departing Hawai‘i. I must have been sleep-deprived, and I prepared myself for a stern talking-to. To my surprise, he laughed. Not only that, he thought that it was a valid question.
“Every time Hōkūle‘a sails into a new place it creates a space for people there to acknowledge and celebrate culture,” Nainoa said. “And, if you look at any culture in the world, we ultimately have the same values: we care about our children and we care about the health of the environment that we each live in.”
Since that night, I have seen Nainoa’s words manifested at every port that Hōkūle‘a has visited. I have personally witnessed the power of Hōkūle‘a span language barriers, socioeconomic status and race. Through Hōkūle‘a’s journey, a new family is established; one that agrees that the time to make a change for the health of our planet is now.
Out of all of the ceremonies I have attended along the worldwide voyage, I have never seen my teacher more moved than when the wa‘a arrived at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in April of 2016. With Lacy’s family and NASA representatives aboard Hōkūle‘a, I listened to Nainoa speak about the significance of the occasion.
“When you look at 35 years of legitimate science—good peer-reviewed science—you could argue that humanity has been changing the Earth, and the sail plan, in a way in which people do not want to go,” he said. “We’ve been around the world and we’ve found fear in many people about a future that they can’t see and that they can’t control. Lacy had a premonition that we needed to go around the Earth… I didn’t forget. I made the promise. Today is the day we celebrate. Today is the day we remember. Today is the day we don’t forget.”
It has been many days since that first night in the boardroom, but I believe that the words Nainoa shared with our Kapu Nā Keiki crew remain true to this day: “If you do not have a vision for your future, then others will try to impress their vision upon you.”
Following Nainoa’s speech, one of our crew read a poem that Lacy had written when he was in the 10th grade at Punahou School:
I stand on the top of a hill
In the rays of the sun’s last glow
And I look over the darkening sea
And across the dusky land
And I say to myself “this is my home.”
Home is a place to be born
And home is a place for growing up
And home is a place to leave,
So I turn my back to the green hills of earth
And turn my steps toward the stars
Hōkūle‘a is not going to change the world on its own. But it will complete this voyage around the planet and, in doing so, create a network of people who are making great changes for the Earth and the life that exists here. Anyone desiring to be a part of this change need ask only one question.
“So what do you guys think, should we go?”